Mariners are in pursuit of Japanese baseball prospect Yusei Kikuchi
If the 18-year-old pitcher signs with an MLB team, it could have ramifications for the sometimes tenuous relationship between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, which has already seen many of its star players, such as Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka, flee to the States in their prime.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Last week, we detailed the story of Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, a highly coveted left-handed free agent who has caught the interest of numerous major-league teams, including the Mariners.
Now let's turn to yet another left-handed pitching prospect — this time, from Japan — who is causing quite a stir among major-league teams. And yes, that again includes the Mariners.
At 18, Yusei Kikuchi is three years younger than Chapman, and his chances of signing with a major-league team more problematic. Yet Kikuchi is enough of a talent — he has clocked out at 96 mph at various tournaments, with the kind of lively arm action that thrills scouts — that at least eight MLB teams are in pursuit.
"This kid's an extraordinary talent," said Ray Poitevint, a legendary international scout who spent nearly 50 years working for the Brewers, Red Sox, Angels, Orioles and White Sox, and still is involved in evaluating Japanese baseball.
"I'm not talking about size, but stuff wise, it's like [the Dodgers' Clayton] Kershaw. This guy is very advanced; he's American-style in his makeup. He's kind of a cocky, aggressive type of guy, mature past his age.
"They have some pretty good baseball players at the high-school level. He just seems like he's playing against babies."
The rub is that Kikuchi has not yet made up his mind if he wants to be the first premier Japanese amateur to shun their draft and sign directly with an MLB team. The Japanese draft will be held Oct. 29, and Kikuchi will likely be the first player chosen.
On Friday, Kikuchi and his adviser — his high-school coach, Hiroshi Sasaki — began meeting with representatives from all 12 Japanese teams, who made 30-minute presentations of why he should sign with them if drafted.
After that he plans to meet with at least eight major-league teams, including the Mariners, by Tuesday. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik on Friday declined any comment on Kikuchi.
Other teams known to have meetings with Kikuchi arranged are the Red Sox, Dodgers, Rangers and Giants, all on Monday, and Yankees and Mets as well as the Mariners on Tuesday.
The question of whether Kikuchi will stay in Japan, or cast his lot with a major-league team — and Sasaki has told reporters it's 50-50 — is fraught with implications more far-reaching than just one pitcher and his future.
It has ramifications for the sometimes tenuous relationship between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, which has already seen many of its stars, such as Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka, flee to the MLB in their prime.
Now the Japanese league is concerned about losing top prospects like Kikuchi before they even throw a professional pitch in Japan.
According to NPB Tracker, which has been following the Kikuchi story closely, the teenager told a Japanese sports publication [Sponichi], "I like to do things that people say are impossible. To be showered in criticism makes me want to do it."
Pat Courtney, an MLB spokesman, said in an e-mail that MLB teams are free to sign Kikuchi.
"The protocol agreement does not cover amateur players," he said.
Yet Japan officials argue that a "gentlemen's agreement" has always existed that MLB would leave amateur players alone. There have been a few exceptions over the years, starting with Makoto Suzuki, who signed with the Mariners in 1993 at age 18 for an $800,000 bonus, but all have had extenuating circumstances.
Suzuki dropped out of school in Japan at age 16 and signed in 1992 with an independent Class A team in Salinas, Calif., that was owned by Don Nomura, a former Japanese player who would later become the agent of not only Suzuki but Hideo Nomo.
Suzuki pitched so well in the minors in 1993 that 20 major-league teams bid for his services. Suzuki went on to have a checkered career that has seen him pitch with four major-league teams, compiling a 16-31 record, along with stints in Mexico and back in Japan (2003-04). Suzuki is 34 and was the closer last year for the independent Calgary Vipers of the Golden League.
When he debuted for the Mariners in 1996, Suzuki became the first Japanese player to pitch in MLB without playing professionally in Japan; the next was reliever Kaz Tadano, who signed with the Indians in 2003. Tadano had been expected to be a high first-round pick in the 2002 Japanese draft, but teams backed off when it was revealed he had appeared in a gay porn video while in college. He appeared in 15 games for the Indians in 2004-2005.
In late 2007, the Mariners signed an 18-year-old amateur pitcher from Kyoto named Kenta Suda, who appeared in 19 games this past season for their Class A Pulaski team.
But the issue of MLB signing amateur players didn't become a hot-button item until last year, when Junichi Tazawa, a 22-year-old star in the Japanese industrial league, asked Japanese teams not to draft him so he could sign with an MLB team. He signed a three-year, $3.3-million contract with the Red Sox with a reported $1.8 million signing bonus.
That figure will likely be a guidepost for Kikuchi. Tazawa started four games for the Red Sox late in 2009 after spending most of the season in the minors. As an 18-year-old, Kikuchi would probably start in the low minors, yet Poitevint believes his ascent would be rapid. He said Kikuchi would be taken in the first five picks if he were eligible for the MLB draft.
"I've seen a lot of high school kids in Japan, and I've never seen anyone like him," said Poitevint, now the president of Seven-Figures Management, a California-based agency that specializes in finding international baseball talent.
"I saw [Hideo] Nomo, and this guy is better. Nomo was a superstar, this guy is a superstar. He's left-handed, so he's got an edge."
The Tazawa signing so concerned Japanese officials that they passed a rule last year dictating that players who shun their draft are subject to a three-year ban from NPB.
Yet players with a desire to play in MLB have to log nine years in the Japanese majors before becoming a free agent, so signing as an amateur is a strong lure. Their only other route to MLB is if their team chooses to "post" them before free agency, which is how Ichiro and Matsuzaka came over.
That delay makes signing as an amateur enticing to some, and Tazawa's quick path to the majors only whetted those appetites.
"After Tazawa, more Japanese players may feel they can make the jump," John Cox, the Giants director of scouting for the Pacific Rim, told Bloomberg in August.
"Kikuchi would open things up completely," Danny MacLeith, a Cubs scout, told Bloomberg.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.